By Sue Donahue
When you live far away from family, especially senior members, it's difficult to notice any changes in appearance or behavior that may indicate any health issues. Even if you speak on the phone with older loved ones regularly, a phone call is not always the best way to tell whether or not they need outside help.
For many, The holidays are one of the few times a year they make the trip to visit extended family members. It’s a great time to do a wellness check on the older adults to see how they’re doing in terms of their physical and mental health.
A depressed older adult may not want to worry you or be too embarrassed to admit he or she is beginning to have difficulty performing certain tasks. They may sound upbeat on a call or short visit, but it is much harder to mask problems in person or during an extended visit. It’s also great because observations can be made unobtrusively, over several days.
But what are the signs you should be on the lookout for during your stay that your senior needs assistance or intervention? Six of them are listed below as well as some advice for what family members can do after the visit to address any issues.
Poor Hygiene. Body odor, unkempt and greasy hair, long fingernails and dirty clothing are all signs of poor personal hygiene and often a symptom of depression, especially in those individuals whose personal appearance was previously important. Behavior changes such as not wearing makeup, wearing wrinkled clothes are things to notice. In extreme cases, poor hygiene can border on self-neglect and jeopardize health.
What can be done? Above all, show compassion and sensitivity in the effort to prevent embarrassment to your loved one. Many older adults experience a decline in their sense capabilities, including smell, due to their age, making them unaware of their physical health. Often, they are too ashamed to ask for help because they don’t want to seem weak or like they’re losing control of their lives. In case of the onset of dementia, early detection is important. Taking advantage of technology to video calling with your senior regularly enables families to talk to and see their loved one regularly on screen where signs of poor hygiene could be observed.
Not wearing suitable clothing for the weather. Older adults’ bodies are less efficient at generating heat. They also tend to have less body fat and a thinner layer of fat under the skin, making them more susceptible to cold, leading to a potentially dangerous situation. Common conditions like diabetes, peripheral artery disease and kidney disease can restrict blood flow and also lower body temperature. It’s also important to know many of the medications older adults take can interfere with normal temperature regulation. A body temperature of 95 degrees can lead to an increased risk of falls, chronic pain, heart problems and hypothermia. Signs of hypothermia include slowed/slurred speech, slower movement, sleepiness, and confusion.
What can be done? The average—and safe—room temperature for an elderly person is around 78 degrees, according to research published in Age and Aging. To prevent an elderly person from becoming too cold, it's recommended the room temperature never drops below 65 degrees. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping the thermostat set at 70°F. Sensors such as those used by Livindi, are placed in specific areas of the home and can help inform and alert family of environmental changes in your senior’s home that need to be addressed through an app on a cell phone.
Failure to take essential medications or refusal to seek medical treatment for serious illness. Drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them. Not taking prescribed medications can have serious consequences for seniors and there are many reasons people choose not to take them, even with a serious health condition. Studies show that 20 percent to 30 percent of medication prescriptions are never filled and that approximately 50 percent of medications for chronic disease are not taken as prescribed causing roughly 125,000 deaths per year.
What can be done? Check in with a medical professional. Is your senior experiencing hearing or vision loss? Not taking medications correctly may be due to a misunderstanding of instructions. If they are taking the medications, is the dosage correct? Are there side effects or bad interactions with other medications? Many medications have unpleasant side effects such as nausea, agitation or dizziness. Pill organizers and medication reminders that help reinforce taking medication as part of daily routine may also help. Livindi’s medication reminders can easily be set through the helper app and notify loved ones through a gentle alarm on their tablet when it’s time to take their medication.
Inability to attend to housekeeping. Do they forget to turn off the stove? Does the house smell bad? Is there mold and mildew in the shower? Do you see layers of dust on surfaces, sticky dirt on cluttered floors or mounds of unwashed laundry? Housekeeping can be hard for older adults with mobility issues. Some strenuous tasks also become more challenging or unmanageable due to declining strength. If a home is not cleaned regularly, floors and surfaces wiped and vacuumed, and bed sheets washed and changed, there is a higher risk for allergic reactions, asthma, and other skin and respiratory ailments.
What can be done? Identify supportive resources to create a current list of people they interact with on a regular basis. The list should include other family members, friends, neighbors and clergy whom you can trust to keep an eye on your loved one and contact in the event of an emergency. Consider seeking help from local agencies to enlist the help of a cleaning service or home caregiver to help out with daily tasks and activities and can assist with whatever is needed to improve overall health. It’s important to discuss this with loved ones first.
Confusion and decreased alertness. Dehydration, medications, there are many reasons older adults experience confusion. Symptoms may range from mild to severe or be a symptom of a more serious health problem. Some behaviors to observe are a display of jumbled or disorganized thoughts, not knowing where they are or recognizing family members or familiar items, unusual, bizarre or aggressive behavior, depression, sleep problems or decreased hearing or vision.
What can be done? Treatment depends on the cause of the problem and a complete medical examination may be needed to determine the cause of confusion or decreased alertness.
Hoarding. Hoarding behavior is when someone compulsively buys and saves so many items to the point they’ve created health and safety issues in their home. Increased fall risk, blocked emergency access, and unsanitary living conditions make hoarding especially dangerous for seniors. Some doctors and psychologists believe hoarding can be a sign of dementia, cognitive issues or mental illness such as depression or anxiety and may be triggered by living alone for long periods of time without social interaction.
What can be done? The cause for hoarding isn’t always clear but it is usually connected to health conditions or mental health issues. Having a doctor do a full medical evaluation can help families figure out if the behavior is caused by dementia or another medical conditions. A picture (or video) is worth a thousand words. Sharing pictures and videos and visiting over a videocall using the LivindiPad tablet and app is an excellent way to help an isolated senior feel less lonely and gives families a look in the house to see whether clutter has become a problem.
Therapy may another way to help seniors manage hoarding behavior. With the Livindi tablet, it is also possible to receive therapy in the comfort of their own home that is covered by Medicare. Overall, patience and encouragement to de-clutter and treating your senior with respect, kindness and compassion are key.
Although nothing can take the place of being with your loved one in person, Livindi products and services can help families and medical and non-medical professionals alike, easily connect with each other and their senior loved ones, coordinate care and keep informed about their senior’s living environment.
The Livindi team wishes you and your family a healthy and happy holiday season. If you are struggling with caregiving or worried about a parent or other senior loved ones, we can help.
To learn more about Livindi Behavioral Health Services, visit our therapy page or give us a call at (508) 416-6030.